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Commentary Sci-Tech

Why some scientists hate the super blue blood moon hype

A few are bugged by all the attention Wednesday's supermoon lunar eclipse is getting. Do they have a point?

Count David Kipping among the scientists who are a little annoyed at all the super blue blood moon hype ahead of the conjunction of lunar happenings Wednesday.

In the above video, Columbia University's Kipping takes pains to debunk, or at least de-hype, the notion that some fantastical cosmic event is about to go down. Using science and clips from Neil deGrasse Tyson's "StarTalk" podcast, he explains it's really just a few routine things coincidentally happening at the same time, and one completely meaningless thing that actually isn't happening at all. 

To summarize briefly: The sun, Earth and moon align in what astronomers call a syzygy twice a month, once at the new moon and once at the full moon phase. When full and the moon is at its closest point to Earth along its orbit, or perigee, we get what's popularly referred to as a supermoon. The more scientific term would be a "perigee syzygy," according to Kipping, who acknowledges the phrase is a bit of a tongue twister.

Supermoons often happen multiple times in a calendar year. Despite the hype, the moon only appears slightly larger and brighter. DeGrasse Tyson argues it's about as "super" as a 16-inch pizza compared to a 15-inch pizza.

Kipping makes the case that this is an abuse of the prefix "super," which is usually reserved in astronomy for truly awesome things like supernovas. He also can't resist getting in a jab at astrologers for popularizing the term.

He has few qualms with the "blood" part, however, which simply refers to the red tinge that will be cast on the moon thanks to a lunar eclipse coinciding with the super, er, perigee syzygy.

Kipping drops a little knowledge bomb on the background of the term "blue moon," which has come to be popularly defined as the second full moon in a calendar month. He points out that older definitions of the term actually refer to the third full moon of the astronomical season and have nothing to do with calendar months. Turns out this isn't the third such full moon of the current season. Either way, the concept is essentially as meaningless as if we started calling it a "Mega-Saturday" whenever Saturday falls on the 31st day of the month. And if you go by the old-school definition, it's just wrong to call this a blue moon. 

Toward the end of the video, Kipping asks viewers if he's right to be irritated by the hype in the media surrounding supermoons and especially this blue-red-super trifecta. (Couldn't we just mix it together and call it perigee purple?) He also asks if he's being perhaps a bit too uptight and wonders if all the hype might not be so bad if it gets people gazing skyward more.

With full respect to Kipping, who is the rare combination of both reputable scientist and solid science communicator, I must mount a defense of my profession.   

I'm clearly a little biased here, but as Kipping himself points out, the correct name for Wednesday's events would be a "perigee syzygy lunar eclipse." 

I have no scientific data to back this up, but I feel confident that many readers' eyes begin to glaze over at the sight of a word like perigee. And when you follow that up with a word like syzygy, you've totally lost them: they've probably already tapped or clicked or swiped on to whatever awesomeness Elon Musk is doing at the moment. 

Yes, the blue moon thing is dumb, but it seems some people out there take an interest in calendar-based coincidences, so why rain on the parade? And even Kipping doesn't quibble with the use of a little poetic license in calling the lunar eclipse a blood moon.

Precision is part of science, as it should be, so it's natural for scientists to quibble about less-than-precise language. But for those lay people who may not have the same passion for science that scientists do, a few (literally) colorful adjectives and maybe even a bit of poetry (so long as it's not inaccurate) can go a long way toward getting us all to look up more often. Perhaps for a moment, we'll even ponder the mysteries of the universe and be thankful that Kipping and others are out there looking for the answers.

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